The 5th generation of consoles was one of the best times to be an RPG fan. Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Wild Arms, Legend of Dragoon—I could go on and on with the hits. However, none of these classics can claim my spot as my favorite 5th-gen JRPG. None of them can even come close to touching my love for the Nintendo 64's Paper Mario. It's not the most mechanically impressive RPG of the era, and it certainly isn't the one with the best story, but it has one important advantage over the other titles of the era: it's just so damn charming.
To put this into context, you need to understand the climate of console RPGs at the time. When Paper Mario released in 2001, the genre wasn't necessarily what you'd call upbeat. The Playstation had been home to dark hits such as Final Fantasy VIII, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, and Parasite Eve, while the poor Nintendo 64 barely had a single RPG to call its own. In the West, the only pure RPGs were the Pokemon Stadium series and the utterly forgettable Quest 64. With Square exclusively making titles for the Playstation, Nintendo needed to produce its own RPG. And that RPG would be Paper Mario.
Obviously, Paper Mario was not the mustachioed plumber's first brush with turn based battles. The phenomenal Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars had released years earlier on the Super Nintendo, but that was with Squaresoft. Now, lacking the JRPG masters, Nintendo went in a completely different direction from the spiritual origin. While the act of pressing buttons in line with Mario's attacks still remained, the game had a completely different look and feel to it, and by extent, every other RPG of the time.
In Paper Mario, instead of plundering dungeons to fight dragons, you were exploring a toy box controlled by Shy Guys and their glorious leader General Guy. Swords are swapped for hammers, and the boss you will encounter the most is a baby koopa still living in his shell. Instead of villains monologuing on their tragic past, they're fumbling to keep up their very poorly-made bowser disguise. It's really the sort of game you should play after a round of some Playstation RPGs, and you will notice an immediate difference in tone. Final Fantasy VII opens with a latin choir. Paper Mario opens with a bouncy tune that wouldn't sound out of place playing in Disneyland.
Another thing you can credit Paper Mario for is that it really started to give the cast of the Mario franchise their own character. This is the game that gave Luigi the personality we know and love him for today thanks to a hidden journal, which details his trademark fear of ghosts and disdain for living in his brother's shadow. On top of that, this is the first glimpse we get at the more goofy side of Bowser, with him throwing in words like "jerk" and "wimp" in his evil monologues. It's really the first time the world of Mario started to get its own identity, and it's one that would impact not just the Mario RPGs, but the wider Mario franchise in general.
I suppose my love for Paper Mario is purely as subjective as one can get. I can play the world's Parasite Eves or Shin Megami Tenseis and appreciate their excellent stories and much deeper mechanics, but they just can't compare to the sheer joy I feel every time I sit down and start another playthrough of Mario's paper adventure. Because like Earthbound before it, Paper Mario just has such a strong force of personality and care put into it that I just can't help but smile, even when writing this now. While the most recent 3DS entry may have tarnished the franchise's good name, Paper Mario is a game that no garbage sequel can ruin. It's been fifteen great years with Paper Mario, and here's for fifteen more.